I browsed through a number of teacher guides in mathematics education from the last two decades and looked for a common pattern. They all contain some kind of critique, of course – that is why they are needed, that is why they are written.
Maybe one can say that it is characteristic for this particular kind of ”cultural practice” – to choose a terminology trying to be neutral – to be in a way ”instable” in the sense that it is a practice where things can easily ”go wrong”. Perhaps this is a very fundamental and important ”function”, so to speak, of the terminology (or discourse, dispositif, symbolic form) of learning and knowledge? My point is that this terminology posits the possible existence of an invisible but desirable process (learning), and an invisible but desirable entity (knowledge). This opens the practice for thinking, control, measurement and not the least critique.
Critique of educational practices thus always has learning and knowledge as their immaterial, invisible and thus one could say precarious object, and the subject of critique is always inadequate performance leading to non-presence of the desirable process and the desirable object.
Perhaps this possibility of presence, given by the terminology of learning and knowledge, is what marks educational practices out from the rest of culture. It could perhaps be said to constitute them as, in a way, sacred or holy; as sacred places (the classroom), where invisible forces are brought into being.
This could then be a point of departure for understanding the place of critique in education – that it is inevitable and intertwined with the very logic of the practice. The existence and possibility of learning and knowledge is given in the discussion about its prevalent non-presence. There would be no education, if learning and knowledge were non-problematic. Thus critique here is constitutive of its object. Teachers guides are needed, because education often go wrong. That is why curricula are needed, teachers, teachers education, assessments, etc.
The mistake would then be to think it possible with a well functioning education, as if learning and knowledge could ever be non-problematic aspects of culture. Their place in culture is given by their precariousness. Education would not be education without the machinery safe-guarding against mistakes and error.
The point is not, now, that learning is ”difficult” and knowledge ”desirable”, and the education thus is a difficult project. The point is that the goal of education is given by the way it understands itself, its terminology, the processes and entities endowed with meaning in its invariant and stable (i.e. ”ritual” according to Roy Rappaport) practices. The goal, that which is measured, that which education fails to achieve, is given by education itself.
This does not mean, however, that education is thoroughly non-functional in society, or that its only function is ”symbolic”. One could say that it may very well perform a function of tradition of norms, skills, common sense, etc. that to some extent is about education – as part of culture – but also about other aspects and spheres, but that the relationship between this function, and the terminology of learning and knowing is quite complex and must be understood in a very different way than as if that which is handed over is handed over ”through” learning and that that which is the consequence of being in school is mainly that which is measured as knowledge.
Learning and knowledge gives instability to the practices of education, it makes sense of them being the subject of regulation, standardization, control, measurement, reform. It is this terminology that make it possible to view them as a failure – even though they may very well – from another perspective, succeed very well in handing over all that which is really important – or at least, could have been the only things important, was it not for the self-referring business of learning and knowledge.
One could then perhaps term this kind of critique, first order critique of education – defined as critique that has as its subject the presence or non-presence of learning and knowledge, including all kinds of specifications of what that ”learning” is that is most desirable, definitions and investigations into the ontology of knowledge, suggestions (i.e. ”rituals” in the olded sense of the word) regarding the proper performance of ”education” for ”learning” to occur, this bringing forth ”knowledge”, the presence of which is established by equally well-performed practices of assessments.
This, then; my description – or perhaps ”re-description” of education, would be a second order critique of education. Or is that the right word to use? Is the two things really similar, as two parts of the same overarching category of ”critique”? Is not the first order critique something quite specific, intertwined with the practices that it is about?
Or is what I am doing here intertwined with education in a similar way, similar enough to call them different species of the same genus – so to speak?